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MIT staff blogger Matt McGann '00

Mind the Gap (again) by Matt McGann '00

About deferring admission for a year, also known as a gap year.

I’m currently in Indianapolis, busy with the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair (ISEF). An entry about ISEF with photos is coming when I get a chance, but in the meantime, this is a good time to talk about the possibility of deferring admission, also known as taking a gap year. In the interests of time, I’m going to reprint an entry (edited slightly) from last year about an Associated Press article:

The Associated Press has a nice story about “gap years” that has been picked up by news organizations across the country. I first saw it at cnn.com/education, but it’s been in newspapers and on websites from Kentucky.com to SanLuisObispo.com.

You can read the story yourself here, but I’ll pull out some choice quotes below for comment.

Many college admissions officers support the idea [of deferring admission for a year or two]. While cautioning that a “gap year” between high school and college isn’t for everyone — and that just goofing off isn’t worthwhile — they say many students who take one return more confident and self-aware. […]

Generally, schools make students submit a proposal beyond “lying on the beach,” but often little more is required. The University of Chicago says it will grant deferrals for almost any reason as long as students don’t apply elsewhere.

“It’s reached the point where a lot of us in admissions are talking about ways to get students to just kind of relax,” said Martha Merrill, dean of admission and financial aid at Connecticut College.

We at MIT are among those college admissions officers who are supportive of students taking a gap year. And, like the University of Chicago (and many other schools), we’re happy to grant deferrals to most any proposal you might have. Also, we agree with Connecticut College’s Martha Merrill — as you’ve probably read on these blogs, we’re quite interested in finding ways of making college admissions and the high school to college transition less stressful and frenzied.

If you are a member of the Class of 2010 and would like to request a one-year (or sometimes two-year) deferral from starting at MIT, you can send a letter outlining your plans to our office:

Office of Admissions
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
77 Massachusetts Avenue, Room 3-108
Cambridge, MA 02139-4307

“Gap year” is a bit of a loaded term, I think, with images of British aristocracy vacationing in the south of France coming to mind. But during my years in admissions, I’ve seen students take some time before starting MIT for many great reasons. For example, one of my favorite students spent a year as an EMT in Israel before his freshman year. This gave him a lot of perspective on the world, and when he got his first bad grade at MIT, he knew that it wasn’t a disaster, but rather an indication that he might want to reexamine his study habits and try a little harder next time. No crisis. Ultimately, his impact on MIT and the students around him was great, and his mentorship, with the help of his gap year’s perspective, was invaluable to many students here.

The article also addresses the different kinds of gap years:

Gap years need not be a luxury for the rich. Some students use them to earn money for school. Many programs offer scholarships or compensation for labor; AmeriCorps offers a living allowance and education funding. Reardon says anyone would be hard-pressed during a gap year to spend the $30,000 or more many of them would be paying for college.

I’m not writing to say that all students should take some time off before starting college. But I do think that there is a bit of a stigma about such plans in many areas of the country, a stigma that should be eliminated. The AP writes:

In the United States, however, experts say the increasing stress of college admissions makes parents nervous about any kind of unusual path. “These are families that somehow see this as not part of the grand plan,” said Gail Reardon, who founded a Boston company, Taking Off, that helps students plan gap years. Adds Lee Stetson, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania: “Not wanting to break stride is the American way.” […] “I don’t think there’s any rational explanation to just run to college,” [Gerrit Lansing, a student who took a gap year] said. “There’s no reason. It’s just what everyone does.”

The bottom line here is that it is okay to slow down. Life, college, career — it’s not a race.

12 responses to “Mind the Gap (again)”

  1. A parent says:

    Sounds interesting. Are there any statistics available on the percentage of students who do return to study after the gap-year(s)?

  2. dj says:

    If you take a gap yaer, will you still be “class of 2010” or will your class year then change to class of 2011?

  3. Anonymous says:

    “The bottom line here is that it is okay to slow down. Life, college, career — it’s not a race.” I totally agree. You should enjoy your life doing whatever makes you happy.

    On another point, I know several ’10 students (myself included) asked questions during your “undecided” posts and you said you would answer them in a questions omnibus. Did I miss that or is it coming soon?

  4. '10 says:

    I had a question about the school report that we have to send in. Do you want us to just have our counselor fill in our grades on the sheet provided or should we also have them send in a final transcript once grades are final? Thanks!

  5. Kallie says:

    Class of ’11…. that would be cool… and 11 is my favorite number!

    Only I’m far too excited to start cracking :D

    [Not from stress]

  6. l0ngL says:

    I didn’t know that “gap year” was an option at MIT, because I wanted to apply to the Congress-Bundestag scholarship to stay and study in Germany for one year.

    I think admission officers should mention this option when they give presentations around the country.

  7. Dana, in the Foreign Languages and Literatures FAQ page (http://web.mit.edu/fll/www/help/FAQ.html) it says:

    “Q: How do I take a foreign language placement exam?

    A: MIT prefers to do its placement on a one-on-one basis, rather than formal exams. The best thing to do is consult with one of the faculty members listed for your particular language interest and send them an inquiry email or talk in person.”

    and continues from there.

  8. Dana Sulas says:

    Hey Matt…

    This is a bit off topic, and perhaps not even within the scope of things you do, but I’m not sure who else I could ask… You see, I’m trying to plan out which classes I could take at MIT next year, and I would like to take German. I’ve taken five years of German classes, taught it at an elementary school, and I’m now living in Austria as an exchange student. I don’t want to start again with “German 1,” but I can’t find anything about placement tests or the like. I was hoping that you could perhaps let me know where to look or who to contact.

    Thanks much,

    Dana Sulas

  9. Tomas says:

    Hey Matt,

    My deferral request was approved, but I still haven’t received anything concerning my email account or other MIT stuff….Do I just get it all in a year?…I’m wondering when I’ll get the number after the name thing…

    ’11 sounds awesome…I’m so good they had to use #1 twice…haha… well thanks

    -Tomas

  10. Joey says:

    Being at Cambridge University this year (yay CME!), I’ve gotten to meet a lot of English students who have taken gap years… it’s fairly popular with people in the UK. So here’s my two cents.

    From talking to my friends over here, I’ve found that most of them have taken a gap year, and none for purely pleasure or relaxation. All of them found one year internships at companies (they call them placements here) where they worked full time. In many cases, it was because they hadn’t gotten into Cambridge or whatever college of choice, and the extra experience helped them the second time they applied. I’ve met many freshers who just finished their gap years, and they all seemed very mature people who weren’t prone to getting stressed.

    It’s partly due to the culture difference between MIT and Cambridge. But I definitely recommend the gap year to high school seniors. Of course it isn’t for everyone. But it gives you time to figure out what the real world is like; it gives you time to think; and it might just give you a better idea of what you want to do in college. I’ve met too many people at MIT who haven’t any idea of what they want to do, and as a result have switched majors multiple times. There must be a medical condition to describe it. I’m too lazy to find statistical evidence to back this up. But I would guess that freshmen who have taken gap years find that their time at university is more meaningful and rewarding. I certainly wish I had done that instead of rushing into MIT and trying to rush out.

  11. Jen says:

    All I can say here is – PLEASE take a gap year. I had the most incredible experience of my life. I spent 4 months in Africa teaching at an elementary school, and after my placement I travelled and saw some of the African continent. It doesn’t matter where you go or what you do, but I promise you will return a more confident, mature and independant person. The experience was invaluable, and I have absolutely NO regrets about my decision. And I still want to go to college, in fact I feel far more prepared for it now than I did before my time out.

  12. Jay says:

    Before grad school at MIT, I went to Princeton, which is also supportive of “gap year” students, and I’d definitely recommend the gap – I wish I’d done one. The students I met who had taken a gap year, (or a productive year off in the middle of colege) were consistently impressive, centered individuals who had a lot of confidence and focus and seemed to get a lot more out of their college experience than many of their peers.